Bakery Bulletin by Phillipa Kelly: Depression Cake and crafty ways to ruin your bakes

Depression Cake by Lee Khatchadourian-Reese (Wikimedia Commons)
Depression Cake by Lee Khatchadourian-Reese (Wikimedia Commons)

The Americans can put a positive slant on anything. Literally anything. They could improve that opening sentence just by saying spin instead of slant.

They trumpety trump their way through life, not thinking but knowing that everything will turn out just swell. I was, therefore, delighted to stumble across the recipe for a beautifully named cake of American origin that appeals to my miserably bitter Englishness.

It’s name? Why yes, it’s J R Hartley. Not really. If you don’t know that name, and if the clue “fly fishing” doesn’t help you, then you’re too young to find me funny, so go away. The cake is called Depression Cake. Wonderful, isn’t it? Simply wonderful that people usually so irritatingly brimming with effervescence can be dragged down to my level. And for a cake to be their downfall is just the, well, it’s the icing... No, I can’t do it.

Technically it wasn’t a cake that depressed the Americans - it was the crash of the stock market - but there is evidence of the cakes existence prior to 1929, albeit with a different moniker. War Cake has been around since The Great War, and Baked Raisin Cake was around during The American Civil War.

It’s all the same cake; it just gets renamed every time something really bad happens. On an entirely unrelated note, do they still make Top Trumps?

Depression Cake seems like a lovely name when you assimilate its other appellations: Poor Man’s Cake and Milkless Eggless Butterless Cake.

That last one more or less gives the game away - the ingredients are pretty weird.

During The Great Depression, every man was a Poor Man, and milk, eggs, and butter were both difficult to obtain and incredibly expensive. To have a dessert of any kind was a luxury, so the Americans needed help.

It was over a decade too early to expect Captain America to turn up (and let’s face it, if you had a choice you’d opt for any other superhero instead of useless old Cap with his shield and, well, it’s just the shield isn’t it) so America looked to their superhero of baking; their Wonder Woman with a whisk; their Cat Woman with a cookie cutter; their Batgirl with a baster; their Lois Lane with a large bowl (you try and think of a baking utensil that begins with an L).

They turned to Betty Crocker. Betty came up with some crafty ways to ruin cakes, and through her radio show Betty Crocker’s Cooking Hour, she shared her ideas with America.

She advocated using shortening instead of butter, water instead of milk, and baking powder instead of eggs. Just as well she started the whole “there’s a cake in this box - just add water” thing, or little old Betty’s career would have gone down the bucket I’m using instead of a cake pan.

M F K Fisher wrote a book called How To Cook A Wolf. This isn’t another Yellow Pages advertisement gag. In his delightfully named book, he (I’m assuming it’s a man. Just like I’m assuming he doesn’t cook a wolf) included a recipe for Depression Cake, but he called it War Cake (you’ve got to pick your battles). He manages to go a step further than Betty and he wins the prize for the best way to spoil a cake. Fisher reckons you can use “bacon grease” and that if you add enough spices, the flavour will be masked. Well done, Fisher. Your prize would be a medal, but I’ve taken a leaf out of your book. No, really - I just tore out a page.

Ladle! I should have tried harder earlier. For the Lois Lane bit? Oh, forget it.